by Nancy Burns
From the Editor: Often in these pages we talk about the history of blind people. Very often it is concrete and can be documented. Sometimes it is speculative, and what we relate is more parable than literal. Thus is the case with this piece by Nancy Burns.
Nancy is a longtime leader in the National Federation of the Blind, and she quarrels with the idea that some will call the long white cane a stick. I appreciate her position while at the same time supporting a fundraiser done by the National Federation of the Blind of Missouri in which we sell shirts that say, “I drive a stick.” They have been popular at the national convention, and many people who see them when we travel appreciate the humor and the fact that we are functioning quite independently on our own. For all of the magic that the long white cane has performed in my life, I could easily advertise it as a wand, but let me not confuse the message of our author. Here’s what she says:
Long, long ago, in a land far away lived a young cave dweller. One morning as he cautiously slipped out of the safety of his cave for his morning walk, he unfortunately met up with a baby T-Rex and was knocked to the ground. This adventurous cave dweller escaped with his life, but he lost the sight in both eyes. He managed to return to the security of his cave and sat down and gave up all of his previous activities. One day while seated, his foot bumped against a stick which he picked up and used to explore the cave. He found that his stick could be used to keep him from bumping into the cave walls and from tripping over rocks. His stick gave him security. He regained independence and could once again explore his surroundings with confidence.
As the centuries rolled around to more modern times, the "stick" became longer and a little more sophisticated. It became recognized as a useful tool for foot travel for blind people during the 1800s. In 1944 long-cane mobility techniques were taught at the Valley Forge Army hospital.
During the 1900s several training centers sprang up throughout the United States. Unfortunately, the belief was that only sighted people could teach these mobility techniques. However, through advocacy and the demonstrated competency of the blind, it became more common for blind people to teach others who were blind. The long white cane became the preferred tool for use by active and mobile blind people. Once they learned the basics of cane travel, blind travelers took these basic skills and began exploring unfamiliar neighborhoods. The sense of hearing was recognized as extremely important so that the blind person could listen for traffic and other sounds. Using additional clues, such as the location of the sun or the direction of the wind, blind travelers became more confident and competent and were actually using what is now known as the Structured Discovery method. Although the method had been used for decades, it was not officially recognized until 1995. In the United States three NFB training centers for the blind have been created. The administrators and the majority of staff members are highly qualified blind people.
As is often the case with the sighted public, some attitudes about blindness remain back in the dark ages. The long white cane has far surpassed the efficiency of the primitive stick, but some continue to call our cane a "stick."
The National Federation of the Blind advances the philosophy that the long white cane is a tool of independence. It allows us to live the life we want. It is challenging to bring the attitudes of the public forward and to encourage them to think of the cane in this manner. As Federationists we have come a long way but have a long way to go in the education of the sighted public and in the eradication of misconceptions that linger.
In speaking with other friends who happen to be blind, it is apparent that well educated individuals in such fields as education, health care, law, and religion may not be educated in the fact that our white cane is no longer called a stick. The New Mexico Legislature passed the White Cane Law in 1967. This law protects the rights of blind citizens who use the long white cane or guide dog. The passage of this legislation is a continuation of the efforts of the Federation to protect the rights of blind pedestrians. The long white cane has truly become a symbol of our independence and allows us to move about and to live the life we want.
Editor’s Note: In support of Nancy’s conclusion, and in defense of those who appreciate and have benefited from our educational system, unless the public has direct contact with someone who uses the long white cane and refers to it with this language, they might be hard-pressed to arrive at our terminology without thinking it offensive or inaccurate. Just for fun we looked at several dictionary definitions. According to the Cambridge English Dictionary online, the definition of cane is as follows: “The long, hollow stems of particular plants such as bamboo: A cane is also a walking stick with a curved handle, used to help someone walk.” The Meriam Webster Dictionary says: “2: a stick typically of wood or metal with a usually curved handle at one end that is grasped to provide stability in walking or standing.”
From the foregoing definitions one can easily see that the cane is primarily thought of as a tool that allows someone who cannot move to be ambulatory. Therefore a sighted person might think it rude to refer to the tool clearly used by the blind as a sensory supplement with the same term and imply a greater physical impairment.
After our back and forth on all of this, Nancy concludes: This article was originally intended to just point out the lack of information certain professionals, especially in the medical field, thought about the cane. I sort of wondered off into a different direction. I really did not want to preach, but I think it did come out a little preachy. Anyway, it was fun to write.